Tutorial: A Laughing Matter

Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 2:23 am | By Ross Preston '10

Issue: Spring 2009

Author: Ross Preston '10

Thinking back to the summer before I came to Grinnell, I recall an inordinate amount of anticipation for everything Grinnell-related that came my way. I would check my Grinnell e-mail account, only to find no new messages. I was constantly thinking of new things to bring to school. And I probably spent too much time on Facebook, discussing my excitement with future classmates.

One of the more interesting things we talked about was which section of the First- Year Tutorial we wanted to get. Tutorial is required for all first-year students — it teaches college-level research, writing, and presentation while examining some fascinating topic in depth.

Incoming first-year students receive information about all of the tutorials sometime over the summer; they send back their top five choices, rankordered, by a certain date to get a spot in one of those five. For my number one choice, I went with the simple title “Comedy,” mainly because I’ve always had an interest in the stand-up variety of comedy and because the course description said we would be watching Pulp Fiction, easily one of my favorite films. I actually had no idea what I was getting into, let alone that it would be perhaps the best class I ever took.

Taught by Erik Simpson, an English professor, the course had four units: theories of comedy/humor, fairy tales, Pride and Prejudice, and lastly, modern films. Each student would write a paper on something from each unit, and once during the semester, every person would receive a workshop-style critique of his/ her writing. Despite the wildly varying subject areas, the course was united by a constant attention to comedy, mostly as a literary genre.

Neither Erik nor anyone else could have anticipated the way the class turned out, which was as funny as the things we were supposed to be studying. Many different people said hilarious things throughout the semester, and the class managed to find ways to inject humor into serious and often thought-provoking discussions. We also worked hard at improving our individual reading and writing skills, which is the intent of any tutorial offered at Grinnell. But I have a hard time believing any other tutorial has had so much fun and so many laughs in doing so.

One of the ways Erik created this enjoyable experience was through the informal but serious atmosphere he established with the class. Early on, he divided the class into two groups: “talkers” and “non-talkers.” Placing the two groups in separate classrooms, he also distributed separate handouts for us to discuss with our group before we were to reconvene. The questions were about class participation, literally “talking” in class, which can be a big thing for new students and is something tutorial aims to help first-years work at as well. Sitting with a group of people who talked about as much as I did helped me discover that college isn’t any more intimidating than any class back in high school.

A great example of one of our open class sessions was the day when everyone had to bring a joke to class. Advised to avoid the “dirty” variety, someone would tell the joke and then the class would analyze how the joke did its work. There is always the danger of taking away all of the fun when performing this kind of exercise, but that never seemed to happen. We laughed at the jokes, and the analysis was never excessive or too basic. It was very instructive to realize how the set-up of a joke was structured.

Not every tutorial is as funny as ours — it’s hard to find comedy in plant genes or imperial regimes — but being able to learn and improve your writing skills while having fun is something I know you’ll experience no matter what tutorial you choose.

Ross Preston '10 is an English major from Ponte Vedra, Florida.